The “Chinese” Republic of Singapore

Singapore has been a “Chinese republic” for a long time. The notion that our natural place in the world is to be part of a Greater Malaya is little more than romantic fiction, not supported by our history. Post-independence Malaysian political rhetoric may attempt this narrative, but it doesn’t mean it’s true.

Have I gotten your attention yet?

Good. Of course I am not about to assert something as simplistic as that — that Singapore is a Chinese republic; partly I’m just out to get your attention, but partly too, it is intended as a dramatic counterfoil to the Malayan fiction.

This post is precipitated by a comment left by Anony on 5 July 2010 at 09:07h on the post Beyond the crooked bridge, but is not a direct response to it. What he said merely triggered something I’ve been thinking about for some time. Anony wrote:

In Mahathir’s mind as well as those with pro-Malay sentiments, they still regard Spore as an annex to their motherland.

It just brings up a very glaring contrast for Sporeans & for myself whenever Mahathir speaks about asserting more pro-Malaysian pressure on us that Spore has changed a lot in terms of racial composition with a different culture taking root with the high influx of China & India immigrants who have no historical baggage towards Malaysia or share no common interests.

In a nutshell, my argument here is that (a) modern Singapore has not changed a lot; (b) but that does not mean we are similar to or that we remain similar to Malaysia, because (c) Singapore has always been different. We only appear to have changed when we implicitly imagine British Malaya as a kind of historical starting point, but to use that as a starting point is total fiction.

British Malaya is not a valid starting point for where Singapore ‘was’.

What do I mean by British Malaya as a starting template? It is to assume that the first building block (and thus the determining pivot for all future) is a Malay sultanate, complete with a picture of innocence and timelessness. Then comes a layer of British influence, reshaping the political economy, but at the same time making the British sphere of influence look inwards to itself, cutting off links with the rest of the Southeast Asian archipelago. This is followed by immigration of southern Chinese and South Indians, who acknowledge the primacy of Malay language, culture and its political institutions, with everybody living harmoniously — what I call the Malayan dream.

First of all, Singapore was never part of British Malaya, which immediately renders inapplicable the above as a starting template. Some Malaysians will doubtless remind us that prior to 1819, Singapore island with its handful of fishing villages was part of the Johore-Riau Sultanate, in an attempt to lock in a certainty hierarchy for all future Singapore-Malaysia relations and Chinese-Malay relations.

Frankly, this is as relevant to present-day affairs as the fact that the Dutch bought Manhattan island from a Native American tribe, or that the Brunei Sultan once had suzerainty over the present-day Malaysian state of Sarawak, the Moro Sultanate (now part of the Philippines) had control over large parts of the present-day Malaysian state of Sabah, or that until 1909,  when the Siamese king signed them away in a treaty with the encroaching British, he was the overlord over the present-day Malaysian states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu.

If the prior overlordship of the Siamese king has no significance today, nor bring any expectation to bear on Malaysian-Thai relations, then there is no case to suggest that the history prior to Stamford Raffles’ 1819 and 1824 treaties with the Johore-Riau sultanate should partly determine present day Singapore-Malaysia relationships.

Singapore becoming more Chinese and Indian?

The second point I wish to address is mirrored in anony’s comment: the idea that Singapore is being sinicised or indianised in a way that, regrettably, takes us away from our history. Implied in that, of course, is that the reference history should be the British Malayan one, which I have described above and noted its historical inapplicability to Singapore. Its modern manifestation is the Malayan dream: that of native-born Chinese and Indians living peacefully alongside, but slightly subordinate to, Malays, with priority given to Malay interests and institutions.

Before I commence on the major rebuttal of that, I’d just like to say: this is too romantic by half. I doubt if anyone can point to any prolonged period when the Malayan shangri-la ever existed, even in Malaya. Furthermore, all countries evolve. As much as Singapore has evolved from our Straits Settlements history, Malaysia has evolved too from its colonial past. What people may find regrettable is that both countries have evolved in different directions, and we’re further apart than we were before.

I honestly don’t even believe that we’re further apart than before. I would contend that Singapore has always been significantly different from Malaya. In my opinion, this fiction of historical similarity came from comparing urban Singapore with the few urbanised towns of British Malaya where the Chinese were the majority. But using the urban centres of Malaya for comparison does no justice to the greater parts of the peninsula that remained predominantly Malay. Today, you could compare the highly modern, westernised, cosmopolitan parts of Singapore with the highly modern, westernised, cosmopolitan parts of Kuala Lumpur and say, hey, there’s not a lot of difference between Singapore and Malaysia after all. But that would be quite unrepresentative sampling.

The fiction of historical similarity comes from selective memory. Without this fiction, the argument that we’re drifting apart does not stand scrutiny. We’ve been apart for nearly 200 years; whether the trend is this way or that, the issue is too complex to reduce to any single measure.

Singapore was peopled very differently from Malaya, thus we’ve always been different

Why do I say we’ve been apart for nearly 200 years?  Because Singapore has been peopled quite differently from Malaya, with all the implications that brings to social and political dynamics. While the inhabitants of Singapore’s fishing villages in 1819 were about 150 persons who were predominantly Orang Laut, a people of Malay stock, within seven years, by 1826, the Chinese had become the largest ethnic group. By the 1840s, they had become the majority with an influx of Chinese labourers, where previously it was mostly traders who came.

Here are the census figures I found from this website, which cites a book Statistics of the colonies of the British empire by Robert Montgomery Martin:

The census of 1833 is shown below:

Basically, everybody living in Singapore today are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, and in the first 10 – 20 years after the founding of modern Singapore, they came from these places:

The striking thing is how little has changed. We continue to receive immigration from China, India and around Southeast Asia. And historically, we’ve had as strong, if not stronger, economic links with and immigration from the Indonesian islands, than with/from the peninsula.

I would also add that for most of our history, the Chinese community in Singapore has maintained relationships with China. Our civil society had links with Chinese civil society; our philanthropists often went back to China to do good work. When Sun Yat Sen worked to overthrow the Qing dynasty, Singapore was one of his revolutionary bases because he could find support here. Except for a hiatus between the 1950s and the 1980s when China closed itself off from the world, there has been a thick skein of linkages between the Chinese here and China. We are just re-establishing what has historically been the norm.

Malaysia’s Chinese dimension is somewhat different in that it has always been the activity of a minority, albeit a large and influential one, hence it’s more like Thailand’s Chinese dimension, or Burma’s or the Philippines’.

Singapore’s Chinese dimension is almost our main story from long ago. Our chief colouration has been Chinese for as long as say, the chief colouration of modern Australia has been white Anglo-saxon (or British stock); the leading cities of Australia were founded in roughly the same period as Singapore — Singapore’s yellowness is as old as Australia’s whiteness. To get a better perspective of how old is our Chinese colouration, consider this: When the Chinese became a majority in Singapore, the Tokugawa shoguns were secure in their rule over a Japan that was closed to the outside world. When the Chinese became a majority in Singapore, the Turkish Sultan was the sovereign over Baghdad, Basra, Algiers, Tunis, Cairo and much of present-day Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia. There was still a Mughal monarch in Delhi, but no country on the map called Germany. When the Chinese became a majority in Singapore, California was still a part of Mexico, with Spanish as its lingua franca, Hawai’i was an independent kingdom and Alaska was part of the Russian empire. If you see those worlds as a very long time ago, then you have to acknowledge that Singapore has been mainly Chinese for a long, long time too.

Having said that, Singapore has never been entirely Chinese either. From our earliest days, we’ve been the meeting point with other peoples from India, Southeast Asia, the Arab world and of course, the West, each of these regions adding to our social mix. That this continues today only shows how little has changed.

Why we’re misled

Then why is there the (mis)perception that we’re becoming more Chinese? I would attribute this to the way the People’s Action Party, which has formed the government since 1959, speaks of the 1950s and 1960s as the beginning of the real modern Singapore. They do this to burnish their own achievements and play down the foundations — and counter models — that others before them have created. The problem with using the 1950s and 1960s as Year Zero is that those were atypical times for Singapore. That was a period when China was isolated from us (and from much of the world) and the notion of merger with Malaya (to create Malaysia) was in the air. The myth of similarity with Malayan society was created to support the latter agenda.

As history proved, our societies were so dissimilar, it was an unhappy marriage and we had to separate within two years. The last few decades has seen Singapore reverting to type, rebuilding our relationships with Indonesia, China, India and farther afield. We are not drifting away from our Malayan template. We’ve always been different; we were never really Malayan.

11 Responses to “The “Chinese” Republic of Singapore”


  1. 1 Raphael Wong 16 July 2010 at 11:18

    Hmm Alex,

    The Malayan thing is a bit more complex than you make it out to be.

    Singapore doesn’t have anything in interest with a Malay primacy it is true; on the other hand, Malay primacy is an expression of anti-colonialism, and that both countries are anti-colonial is similarity in itself.

    Matters of government aside, because we are so close to each other, the culture of Malaysians and Singaporeans is very much the same; Malay primacy is a political element, not a cultural feature. Not many people across the causeway will actually assert that over you.

    What matters is not the proportion of people settling, but the type of people settling and the culture they have. In our case, the same types of people settled in Singapore and Malaysia, and interacted in more or less the same way.

    Before Raffles arrived, local Chinese and Indian immigrants melded into and mixed with the Malay population. The arrival of the British and the coolie trade disrupted this pattern. Once the coolie trade was banned and the Chinese from China became more settled, the pattern resumed. (Singapore did have kampungs once.) It lasted even through the war.

    When the PAP came into power, LKY decided to Confucianize Singapore, and so today we hear the older generation bemoaning the loss of “Kumpung Spirit”.

    The case of the Dutch in Manhattan is a different story. The Dutch established their own settlement for Dutchmen, and that settlement offset the native Indians’, or “replaced” Indian tribal grounds. In Singapore’s case, the British merely established a port, and not a settlement-colony like Virginia or Georgia. The port remained paramount, even after we gained colonial status in the 1850s. In Malaya’s case, the British directed the governments indirectly through Residents, who were formally ambassadors, but usually exercised far more than just a diplomatic role. The only strict British presence was in Penang.

    The UK, as a rule, was more interested in economy than culture.

  2. 2 yuen 16 July 2010 at 11:40

    when Raffles landed in Singapore, he asked who ruled the place, and this turned out to be Sultan of Riau Tungu Rahman, who was feuding with his brother Tungu Long; Raffles then signed an agreement with Tungu Raman to meke him the Sultan of Johor, who then ceded Singapore to British India Company in return for cash and protection

  3. 3 yuen 16 July 2010 at 11:45

    sorry a slip up: raffles signed agreement with tunku long not rahman, thus splitting johor from riau

  4. 4 Sprechen Sie Singlish? 16 July 2010 at 12:06

    Honestly, I’ve known these facts since the history classes of my secondary school days but this article places much of this into the over arching prospective I was complete unaware of. A very commendable interpretation of historical events.

    The only minor flaw I see is to down play the difference in mindset of mainland Chinese with that of Chinese diaspora (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, etc) imprinted during those years missing years of the 1950s to the 1980s. That difference in mindset forged in the Maoist era is what I think triggers the fears of the Other in Chinese Singaporeans.

    Yes, we are restoring historical links. But with a nation whose developmental trajectory is radically different from our own or any of the diaspora states. I very much doubt that there would be issues if we were dealing with a large influx of lets say Hong Kongers.

    If the German reunification experiences is anything to go on, those tensions are not going away any time soon.

  5. 5 mr.udders 16 July 2010 at 14:48

    As history proved, our societies were so dissimilar, it was an unhappy marriage and we had to separate within two years.

    That depends on whose version of history you believe.

    There is evidence that the merger and dissolution were engineered by Lee Kuan Yew, in that Lee Kuan Yew’s main goal was Singapore’s independence (and by extension, his complete dominance over the country).

    Hence, he and his team opted for merger as a red herring to appease British demands.

    Once the British were out of the picture, severance from Malaysia was the next logical step in order for him to achieve his masterplan.

  6. 6 Natasha 16 July 2010 at 14:58

    What a peculiar entry. I can’t make up my mind whether it is just ill-informed, or deliberately mischievous in its reading of history. I don’t have time to list all the errors, but the basic point I would like to make is that you set up a completely false dichotomy: the idea that Singapore was either ‘part of Malaya’ or ‘Chinese oriented’. There is no contradiction at all; Singapore was both.
    Singapore, as the chief colony of the Straits Settlements,was most definitely part of British Malaya for much of the colonial period – administrative ties (yes, a separate administratitve unit, but not a seperate civil service for most of the time), educational links, a shared currency, port services, an almost entirely integrated commercial elite, business structures… just because there were commercial and migration links with other parts of the world – both the ‘Malay world’ and the ‘Chinese world’ does not nullify the blunt fact that the political divisions of the colonial period put Singapore and Malaya together.
    Yes, the demographic weight of ethnic Chinese in Singapore was much higher than in the Malayan peninsula as a whole (although at independence ethnic Malays were actually a minority), but by the same token the same could be said of Penang and Malacca, at particular historical junctures. Yes, remittances, family ties, trade links and the flow ideas, literature and political loyalties linked a large part of the ethnic Chinese community in Singapore with China, but none of that is either politically determinative or something that nullifies the many substantial forces that also made Singapore an integral part of Malaya.

  7. 7 bloom 16 July 2010 at 18:54

    Agree with Natasha. And why single out Singapore? What about Penang?

  8. 8 Mat Alamak 16 July 2010 at 21:39

    Singapore is perceived as a “Chinese Republic” because the Chinese are the majority here. Simple as that.

    But just because of that it is naive to think it is like China or Taiwan. Singapore is Singapore, that’s why we have an Indian Head of State although the majority of ministers including PM are Chinese.

    By circumstance and design, SIngapore is what it is in order to survive and prosper. It will be friends with whoever is in her interest, be it China, USA, Indonesia or even Timbuktu. Or make willing foreigners into citizens to maintain the population if necessary. THis is the PAP way to continue surviving and also “prospering”.

    And like many things, PAP don’t care what others think or perceive. More important is what others did, can or will do that will cause it harm and to ensure PAP is in a strong position to protect itself and Singapore from such harm, including by sacrificing local born Singaporeans into 2nd class citizens if necessary.

    Hence calling SIngapore by names such as Chinese Republic, dictatorhip, etc cut no ice with the PAP.

  9. 9 Paul 16 July 2010 at 21:46

    The racial mix was a colonial endeavour by the occupying power to divide and rule.

    In 1945, the racial balance in the Peninsula was such that the MPAJA which was predominantly Chinese felt that it was realistic to assume control of the country in the power vacuum. The Malayan Union was a response to that and of course we all know where that led….

    Once the occupying powers left, natural demographics took over in the Peninsula. In Singapore, there are racial policies to ensure the dominance of certain racial groups which the minorities have to accept….

  10. 10 r 17 July 2010 at 15:24

    agree with natasha in her reading of singapore and malaysia’s historical positions.

    singapore was probably very similar in culture and demographical structure as compared to the other main malayan urban centers before independence. any differences were probably accentuated or introduced post-independence/dissolution. singapore was probably singled out, became a separate crown colony, and eventually gained independence cos it was relatively larger in size in terms of both population and economy as compared to other “straits settlements”, due to its strategic geographical advantages.

    i doubt anybody would refute the fact that singapore and malaysia today are pretty different in nature more than 40 yrs after separation, due to the fact that for the first time in history singapore and the peninsular are under completely different governments. but to say that singapore had always been different from the peninsular, is perhaps akin to saying that New York, with its hyper dense urban environment, relative lack of “car culture”, is “unAmerican”. to define regional characteristics, i guess one has to accept such intra-regional differences. otherwise comparison is meaningless.

    moreover, contrary to what you had asserted about malaysian chinese being more similar to their thai/indonesian/filipino counterparts, i feel that malayan/singaporean chinese are much more similar to each other than their regional counterparts. integration with the indigenous malay population has been far less successful be it for malaysian chinese or singaporean chinese, due to the relative large numbers of chinese population as compared to indigenous population. this may also well be part of the reason for singapore’s eventual independence. that is why, despite being a 100% locally born n bred singaporean, i have always considered this city state as an artificial creation, a little red dot that is a culmination of this reluctance by malayan chinese to integrate.

  11. 11 SGC 25 July 2010 at 13:25

    I believe what the author was trying to lament about is the wrong rejection of Chinese (cultural or otherwise) roots by the society of Singapore, and the negative emotions of Singapore “becoming more Chinese”, all thanks to early government policies. (Side note: Nanyang Siang Pau(at that time) got into trouble when its journalist pointed out that the government of Singapore, under Lee, was destroying Chinese language and culture in Singapore.)

    Good article by the Yawning Bread.


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